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[whitespace] 'Kikujiro' Just the Two of Us: Takeshi Kitano's flyweight 'Kikujiro' is several scoops of mush.

Frame Job

The SF International Film Festival's back, and scarier than ever

THIS YEAR'S San Francisco International Film Festival is back from globetrotting to claw at local senses again. Since perceptual rearrangement is the order of the 14 days, we've tried to present as widely varied an approach to writing as the fest provides to watching. Our critics, mulling the available early screening materials, can give but the tiniest possible of such a gallingly great festival, the oldest in the Americas, (so the perennial note goes). Enjoy.

Heat and Haze: Opening Night

ADOLESCENTS JUSTIFY their fantasies of suicide with two reasons. First, they're too warped to live among normal people. Second, they're too beautiful to live in such a warped world. The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola's feature film debut, opening the SFIFF (April 20 at 7pm at the Castro Theater), is about the second way of death. I have a limited interest in virgins and suicides, and The Virgin Suicides seemed to me only a boutique film, mannered and occasionally pretty, noteworthy for its soundtrack by Air and some tantalizing glimpses of Kirsten Dunst.

Dunst plays one of a tribe of five suicidal girls in an upper-middle-class Michigan suburb circa 1975: Lux, Cecilia, Bonnie, Mary and Therese. Dunst is the sister the camera shows the most interest in. Lux's tony name means "light" in Latin. Therese (Leslie Hayman), the youngest Lisbon, was the first to kill herself. These sisters are the blonde and unaccountably beautiful daughters of a dull math teacher (James Woods) and his drab and highly overprotective wife (Kathleen Turner). (Their last name is Lisbon. The girls all have saints' names. Thus you'd think these girls would be Catholics--which would explain a lot about their attraction to martyrdom. But Coppola has made Mrs. Lisbon a non-denominational religious nut.) The unseen narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) explains that these Lisbon sisters were the golden hearts of the neighborhood.

The Virgin Suicides begins with the suicide attempt by Therese. When a doctor confronts her as someone too young to feel depressed, Therese squelches him: "Obviously, you've never been a 13-year-old girl." Blackout. According to Coppola, this logic is unanswerable, and yet you'd love to have it answered. And that instance sets the theme for the movie. The narrator sums it up: "We knew that they [the Lisbons] knew everything about us, and that we could not fathom them at all."

As Coppola presents this quintet of misses, they aren't fathomed. The girls are as unknowable to us as they are to the boys. And yet we see so much more of them than their young male suitors do; we see the insides of their house, we hear their private conversations. And we note that mostly what they do is lie on the floor and pine. As viewers, we don't have an intermediate point between the silences of the girls and the mystic praise of the boys.

Dunst is the most provocative--inscrutable, dreamy and effortlessly lewd. Lux lures men, despite her forbidding parents. The turning point of The Virgin Suicides is a prom night where Lux gets in trouble through a combo of peach schnapps, pot, the music of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" and the attentions of the most charismatic boy in school (Josh Hartnell, very good as the stud "Trip" Fontaine). After this night, Lux and the rest of the girls are pulled from school and kept walled up in their house by their furious mom. Lux is the only one who rebels--even in a self-wounding way--by becoming promiscuous. The ever-watchful boys spy on Lux from an adjacent bedroom window. Their wisecracks doesn't fit in with The Virgin Suicides' intent, to show us an F. Scott Fitzgerald-style view of these lost women as the axis on which a lost world turns.

The narrator tells us of the confusing "estrogen haze" the father James Woods lives in. It's a witty description, and Woods' lonely father is amusingly underplayed; he seems to dwindle throughout the film. Yet The Virgin Suicides has such an estrogen haze that it almost fogs the lens, a drugged quality that reflects the narrator's perhaps untrustworthy claims that these girls are unknown and unknowable, and--by implication--too good for this world. The Lisbon girls take their confinement literally lying down. They're all sprawled around the floor, hair spread artfully like halos, as if their bedroom were the Blonde Hole of Calcutta. It's at times like these that The Virgin Suicides seems precious, a vision of dreaming, locked-up youth. I can tell you that this vision doesn't match the spirit of the mid-'70s, a time of running away and exploring. The call to freedom was so loud that even these spookily abstracted wenches would have heard it.

Coppola deserves praise for having picked Jeffery Eugenides' odd book to adapt. And she had the taste to do sick-humored scenes, even if they aren't handled in a way to make them funny: a cemetery strike during a funeral, and a water-pollution-themed deb ball, which the guests attend in brocaded gas masks. Also clever is the use of vintage '70s split screen, slow motion and filters for the scenes of Lux's dreaminess--just like the parody of '70s images of schoolgirl romance in the film Dick. But the same sort of lazy, yearning quality used for laughs in Dick is all too serious here. (The Virgin Suicides opens April 21 at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose.)
Richard von Busack

The Word, the Letter and a Tree

The Gospel according to the Papuans (April 30 at 2pm and May 2 at 4:30pm) says it all, sometimes: "Adventists can't eat pig. Satan hides in the pig's ass. They can't smoke, either. Satan smokes in the pig's ass." As the New Guinea Papuans spend 60 rambling minutes explaining their conversion to the Methodist faith, all is fair game--asses, pigs, Adventists and Catholics. The problem is, the filmmakers' planned indictment of white missionaries becomes comically derailed as the Papuans consistently point to the filmmakers as the only white men around. Furthermore, while the film catches every silly Papuan religious belief, it fails to make these connect to Western religious ideas in any way, shape or form. Instead of seeing the arbitrary nature of religion by watching another society explain it, we watch a sophisticated game of telephone as the Papuans change the popular "God's will be done" to the troubling "The proof of God is airplanes. The whites have everything because God gave it to them." Instead of seeing some universal truth about religion, we only see the problems in the Papuan conversion, and that is due in part to a complicit documentary crew.

Manoel de Oliveira's The Letter (May 3 at 9:30pm and May 4 at 4pm) is a small film with big ideas. The Letter has a neat structure that provides intertitles before each chapter. Furthermore, each chapter in the first half of the film includes a song. This simple structure builds momentum and de Oliveira manages to take on society, love, desire, and morals. The Letter is an adaptation of the 17th-century novel The Princess of Cleves, a court-society drama, where "love was always allied to politics and politics to love. No one was untroubled or unmoved: each considered how to advance, to flatter, to serve or to harm; boredom and idleness were unknown, since everyone was engaged in intrigue or the pursuit of pleasure." What separates The Letter from the melodramatic stuffiness of Dangerous Liaisons and its source novel The Princess of Cleves is de Oliveira's treatment of the adaptation: the novel is transported full-scale to modern-day Paris. A beautiful young woman raised in the old style is brought into society at marriageable age. She is promptly married to a good man but finds herself inextricably drawn to a flashy Portuguese rap star who returns the feeling. The battle between her duty and her heart destroys everyone around her and drives the poor girl to the convent. De Oliveira's deft handling and the actors' delicate characterizations provide a moving if ridiculous film. But that is really the point. The values, ideals and ideas are patently out of place, the structure is simple, the treatment is anything but melodramatic, but they are moving nevertheless.

Charisma (May 2 at 10pm and May 4 at 9:30pm) is fantastic, thought-provoking, funny filmmaking. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest film taps into one of the most interesting sub-genres of Japanese cinema, the ghost film. In Kenji Mizoguchi's famed Ugetsu Monogatari, a poor man leaves for town and falls in love with a mysterious woman who turns out to be a ghost. Heartbroken, he returns home to his wife only to find that she has been a ghost for years. And in the modern fantasy epic Demon Pond, a traveler misses his turn and ends up in a strange village haunted by a demon and graced by a beautiful woman who may or may not be a man, a ghost, or the demon. The ghost film allows for unexpected plot twists, complicated love affairs and a generous helping of philosophical meditation.

Kurosawa's version of the ghost film is no exception as it ups the cinematic ante and includes the cop vigilante, the nature film, and the desert island societal study. Charisma is named for a ghost tree, and a type of tree that is very rare and possibly emits a noxious toxin into the soil that kills all other trees and infects the food that does manage to grow. Enter Yabuike, a cop who finds himself without a badge on Charisma's turf. As the forest's bizarre cast of characters pressures Yabuike to take a stand on Charisma, he finds himself facing the moral dilemma he never identified as a cop: save the tree or save the forest, save the criminal or save society. Along the way, botanical bounty hunters intimidate, crazy ladies steal suitcases of bills, and the sanitorium director's wife starts seeing things.
Emily Golembiewski

Bodies and Corn

Beau Travail (April 29 at 7pm) really is Claire Denis' best work. Opening with Afro-Franco house music in a Djibouti disco, her camera soon retires to a burnt desert wasteland, where the flat terrain's dust stains soldiers. Beau Travail ostensibly is an adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd transposed to the French Foreign Legion. Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard are both reverent and casual in their treatment of the mostly half-naked soldiers. They train aimlessly, exercising seemingly for its own sake, and have graciously donated their sinews to objecthood.

Virtually plotless, Beau Travail's graphic beefy tactics stop just short of mythicizing the male torso. Its status as a homoerotic text is indelicate and problematic, particularly with a woman at the helm. Denis Lavant, the oaf from The Lovers of Pont-Neuf, thinks with his whole body onscreen. Here he plays Chief Master Sergeant Galoup, mostly with his stingy, puckish muscles, through deliberate, reptilian gestures and with his strange cigarette-style. He is as distinct as Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant or James Dean, but he nevertheless is irretrievably with his fellow actors, his troops. He is matched against a smoother, tanned boy, Gregoire Colin, the hero who doesn't speak until he pipes up "Yes, sir" seemingly halfway through the film.

Denis is consistently scrambling and evocative with her music choices, too. The woman who could in her last movie make one feel Vincent Gallo's love hum for four minutes of a Beach Boys song, programs this one like an assassin. In fact, the only tension in the film, outside of the men challenging their own bodies every second, is from the musical overlays. The men march to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, balletically stretch to Britten's Billy Budd Opera, and Lavant saves his best moves for the breath-swiping conclusion in the disco.

Kikujiro (May 1 at 7pm and May 3 at 1pm), the latest from Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, Japan's answer to Clint Eastwood and early Jerry Lewis, accents the latter. Kikujiro is Kitano's own Geisha Boy, an earnest affair that starts with one of the director's paintings of an angel. Done in a flat, pastel color, the picture unluckily resembles a South Park design, a flavor that one thirsts for throughout the movie. Despite the muted yet broadly gushing performances of the cast, some shots here are redeemed by their sheer openness, their nakedness. An overhead look at a boy badly practicing soccer met by his teacher on a bicycle is well-tempered and far more realized than the globular "Just You and Me, Kid" fatuousness. It's probably best seen without subtitles.
Edward Crouse

For details on the films to be screened at the SF Film Festival, call 415.931.FILM. The festival runs April 20 to May 4 at the Kabuki. Advance tickets can be purchased at the theater in San Francisco or online at www.sfiff.org.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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